Winner Booker Prize 1978
Extraordinary Storytelling and Narration!
This is an extraordinary combination of superb prose writing, storytelling, narration, and character depth. I first heard of this book from an excellent book reviewer “The Book Chemist” on YouTube. His review and the fact that Simon Vance was the narrator caused me to suddenly add it to my TBR list in front of the next book.
The main character narrates the story in the first person. In the audiobook, the narrator Simon Vance is amazing in his performance. The character Charles is a former famous London playhouse director and actor, who has decided to retire to a small seaside village and buys a house on a cliff that overlooks the sea.
Both the house and the sea are characters in the book similar to a Thomas Hardy novel. Just as the sea is always changing in colors and turbulence, the house is also changing by the dialogue and interaction of the characters within it.
Charle’s planned peaceful life is disrupted by his own and others’ love obsessions and the story unfolds in more complexity as characters come into the story and become intertwined in complex relationships.
The “karmic past” comes back to haunt Charles and he holds his own as a strong controlling character. He tries to direct his own life in the new setting by the sea and in his home yet cannot control how life’s events unfold.
Food is also an important part of the narrative as shown in this quote:
“I ate and drank slowly as one should (cook fast, eat slowly) and without distractions such as (thank heavens) conversation or reading. Indeed eating is so pleasant one should even try to suppress thought. Of course, reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”
My journey with this story was like a page-turner, and as an audiobook, with the excellent narration by Simon Vance, it was hard to stop. I became immersed and engaged with the story and characters.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The strengths of this book are its deep focus on character and love obsession, excellent prose, and a stellar audio narration.
A weakness in the story might be that there is too much emphasis on the love obsession to the point that it becomes redundant. Yet this might be intentional on the part of the author to show how mental illness can create excessive behaviors.
With most of the characters being actors, then the line between real and acting becomes thin. This becomes a theme in the book both in the characters and in their thoughts, and the challenge for the reader and the characters is to discern which is which in any given moment. The Shakespeare quote could easily be in the background of this story:
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” – Shakespeare
This is a book that I plan to keep in my library and listen to again, as the writing style of Iris Murdoch resonates with my experience of listening to audiobooks. There is magic in her style of writing in this book, and I look forward to savoring more of her books like a favorite red wine.